Seven Differences Between Mental and Emotional Health

Would you know how to distinguish an emotional problem from a mental one? Is the sadness that you're feeling now due to a temporary discomfort or could it be depression? Learn how to identify these different circumstances.
Seven Differences Between Mental and Emotional Health
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 11 April, 2024

Are there any differences between mental and emotional health? Or, are they two sides of the same coin? We might say that the intersection between both areas is 50 percent. After all, mental well-being includes the physical and social dimensions and, of course, the one related to emotions. However, there are important distinctions between one sphere and the other.

For example, emotional health is expressed in the ability to understand and regulate emotions but this doesn’t include information processing or states of chronic worry. Balance, satisfaction, and happiness require comprehensive care of both mental and emotional health and their processes. It’s important to know the difference between the two spheres.

People who often have trouble managing their anger, fears, or insecurities exhibit emotional health problems.

Differences between mental and emotional health

There’s a metaphor that can help us understand these two realities. We can view mental health as the ocean and emotional health as the waves. The first contains everything. It’s an immense area that covers a good part of what we are. But, the waves give us movement, sense, and direction. The two elements can’t be separated, but each one presents its own dynamics.

There are some individuals who possess good mental health but exhibit the same emotional reactions as a three-year-old child. Becoming aware of these kinds of particularities allows us to focus on any neglected areas and improve many areas of our lives, such as our social relationships. Next, we’ll explore the differences between mental and emotional health.

1. Mental health concerns the way we think

Some people fall into vicious circles of irrational, obsessive, and limiting thoughts. Others believe that the whole world is conspiring against them. Our ways of thinking and processing reality have a direct link with our mental health. If these dysfunctional mental approaches are maintained over time, mental disorders emerge.

Persistent ideas like “I can’t handle this,” “Nobody loves me,” or “Everything is going to go wrong” are problematic thought patterns. The same is true of more complex disorders in which delusions or totally disorganized ways of thinking appear.

2. Emotional health involves being aware of our feelings and understanding them

Feelings are the mental processes we experience immediately after feeling an emotion. However, we’re not all skilled when it comes to understanding what we feel and what’s inside of us. Are we sad? Are we angry? What’s making us react in the way we do? Emotional health means being able to make contact with our feelings and identify them.

3. Mental health involves making decisions and the difficulty in solving problems

Sometimes, the whole world is complicated and we’re unable to make decisions. Moreover, we can’t even solve the simplest of problems. We feel blocked, can’t focus, and are unable to face the challenges of everyday life. Mental health concerns our willingness and ability to make decisions and think of solutions to any situation.

In this regard, an investigation conducted by the University of New England (Australia) claims that therapy based on problem-solving improves the mental health of students.

We can be in good mental health yet lack good emotional skills. In these cases, we should empower ourselves in the development of good emotional intelligence.

Man thinking about the differences between mental and emotional health
Although mental and emotional health share common elements, there are nuances that differentiate between them.

4. Emotional health involves our fears and insecurities

One difference between mental and emotional health concerns avoidance behaviors and fears. Emotions such as shame or insecurity are often limiting. They’re rooted in the emotional universe.

Getting carried away by the most difficult emotions without reasoning, channeling, and regulating them completely conditions our potential and well-being.

5. Mental health concerns brain processes and mental disorders

Mental health has a direct correlation with the brain and its processes. In fact, certain psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, present specific alterations at the neurological level. An article published in the journal, Biological Psychiatry claims that conditions such as bipolar disorder exhibit cortical and subcortical abnormalities.

Therefore, it’s common for mental disorders to have a deeper rather than a complex substrate. While the emotional area may also be altered, the majority of changes involve problems in reasoning and thinking along with striking changes in mood and behavior.

6. Emotional intelligence and resilience are the foundation of emotional health

We know that good management and understanding of our emotions mediate our well-being. Moreover, it helps us build healthy relationships and achieve goals. One of the differences between mental and emotional health is that the latter is closely linked with emotional intelligence.

For example, an individual without social skills or good empathy will have extremely poor emotional health. The same is true of resilience. Indeed, being unable to overcome difficulties or look at life in a more hopeful way affects our well-being.

According to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence is made up of the following elements. We should exercise them daily.

  • Empathy.
  • Motivation.
  • Social skills.
  • Emotional self-awareness.
  • Emotional self-regulation.

7. Mental health involves changes in personality and behavior

One remarkable factor is that any change in personality could indicate a mental health problem. For instance, becoming more apathetic, aggressive, suspicious, or impulsive. The same happens with behavior, and carrying out actions that negatively affect our health, such as self-harm.

woman representing the differences between mental and emotional health
If there’s any doubt as to whether we’re suffering from mental health problems, we should seek psychological help.

How do you know if you have a mental or emotional health problem?

“I feel alone.” “I feel sad”. “My life’s a disaster”. We all go through dark moments and experience high emotional suffering. At these times, it’s common to wonder if you have a mental health issue. We must reiterate that there are extremely diffuse borders between emotional and mental health. However, here are some keys to differentiating between them.

The emotional suffering that you might experience due to adverse events isn’t linked with a mental health problem. In fact, feeling bad when you go through an adverse event is completely normal.

How to figure out if you’re dealing with a mental or emotional health problem

Some life experiences bring a great level of psychological pain. They’re the kinds of vital events in which suffering doesn’t signify a mental disorder. For instance, a loss, a breakup, or feeling anxious about not finding a job are eventualities linked to emotional and not mental health. If you’re trying to figure out if you’re suffering from an emotional or mental health issue, consider the following.

  • The amount of time. Have you spent months being unable to think clearly, experiencing memory problems and really negative thoughts?
  • How is the discomfort affecting different areas of your life? For example, have you gone for weeks without sleeping properly? Do you feel apathetic and sad and unable to go to work or socialize?
  • Are you carrying out self-harming behaviors that you can’t avoid? For instance, addictions, self-harm, and purging behaviors?
  • Do you feel like you have no control over reality? Have you stopped being interested in things that were important to you before? Is it a long time since you felt good about yourself?

All of the above factors suggest a mental health problem. Therefore, if you identify with any of them, you should seek professional help.

In conclusion, anyone can find themselves having to deal with problems in the mental or emotional realm. They’re two spheres that, like the parts of an atom, always go together. That said, it’s advisable to know how to distinguish them for your integral well-being.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Abé, C., Ching, C. R. K., Liberg, B., Lebedev, A. V., Agartz, I., Akudjedu, T. N., Alda, M., Alnæs, D., Alonso-Lana, S., Benedetti, F., Berk, M., Bøen, E., Bonnin, C. D. M., Breuer, F., Brosch, K., Brouwer, R. M., Canales-Rodríguez, E. J., Cannon, D. M., Chye, Y., Dahl, A., … ENIGMA Bipolar Disorder Working Group (2022). Longitudinal Structural Brain Changes in Bipolar Disorder: A Multicenter Neuroimaging Study of 1232 Individuals by the ENIGMA Bipolar Disorder Working Group. Biological psychiatry91(6), 582–592.
  • Malouff, J. M., Thorsteinsson, E. B., & Schutte, N. S. (2007). The efficacy of problem solving therapy in reducing mental and physical health problems: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review27(1), 46–57.
  • Stewart-Brown S. (1998). Emotional wellbeing and its relation to health. Physical disease may well result from emotional distress. BMJ (Clinical research ed.)317(7173), 1608–1609.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.